Life Cycles Go beyond the Grave

Article excerpt

Life cycles go beyond the grave

Prince Charles knows just how damaging cars are to the environment, but BMW consumer research shows the heir to the throne is currently out of step with his future subjects.

However, the UK concessionaires are betting that the Prince of Wales is only a small distance ahead of the rest, and have majored on green issues in the 4.5 [pounds] million launch of the new 3 Series saloon.

BMW admits that consumers don't rate cars for the ease with which they can be recycled. Pre-launch research with agency WCRS put this particular product benefit way down the list, according to Chris Willows, BMW GB public affairs manager. "It didn't feature very strongly as being an important issue," he concedes.

But that hasn't stopped BMW or WCRS from being determined to push recycling as far up the car buyers' agenda as possible. WCRS chairman Robin Wight is convinced that recycling is the coming issue. "Research shows latent interest which we believe will become a blatant interest," claims Wight. Knowledge that BMW stresses the importance of building recycling capability into its products may help drivers of the future come to terms with what they will be doing to the environment.

Actually, BMW's recycling capability isn't even a unique selling proposition, according to Willows. "Other German manufacturers enjoy a similar capability in one degree or another," he says. All that is different is that here we haven't thought about the issue before. "It's unique to the British public."

In truth, if the proud owner of a new BMW 3 Series expects his car to be easier to recycle over here than any previous models just at the moment, he's in for a disappointment. This particular product benefit is a long-term one. The infrastructure to provide the innovative recycling techniques foreseen by BMW are really only at the pilot stage in Germany and are not available in the UK.

This does not mean that dead cars are simply piling into holes in the ground. Car recycling has been a flourishing business for decades. According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers And Traders, around 75% of a wreck is already recycled successfully. Parts are cannibalised for reconditioning-alternators, starter motors and so on; catalytic converters, with their expensive platinum and rhodium content, are readily recycled and the motorist receives a trade-in allowance against a new one; much of the remaining metal bulk of a car is crushed, squeezed and turned back into other useful metal goods. Even some glass can be recycled.

It's the composites, like plastic, which cause most problems. And its a growing problem. As manufacturers try to reduce car weight - to make them more energy efficient-the proportion of composites to metal increases. Already in Germany plastic bumper remains are being returned by BMW repair shops for recycling, according to Willows. Not all of the recycled material is good enough for a new BMW bumper, but it's fit to become part of a less visible component like a sound-deadening panel.

But despite the focus on recycling composites, these materials still only constitute a quarter of the bulk of a car. Is this enough to make an environmental issue and a major plank of a marketing strategy? Willows maintains that the unrecycled residue amounts to an environmental cost. "The onus is on the manufacturer, particularly of parts, to reclaim as much as humanly possible."

It seems likely that the emphasis on recycling, in spite of a distinct current lack of consumer demand, actually reflects pressures which are far more evident in BMW's home market. …